(All images by Samuel King Jr/USAF; wrecked F-16B 78-0097)
Despite the impending arrival of its stealthy fifth generation replacement, the F-35 Lightning II, the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon remains one of the world’s most capable multi-role combat aircraft. But most of those early model ‘Vipers’ that first wowed airshow crowds back in the late 1970s and ’80s have long been withdrawn from service. After standing idle for years at the famous Davis-Monthan AFB boneyard in Arizona, in 2014 long-retired F-16s began taking to the skies again as QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Targets to replace the last QF-4 Phantom drones. This dramatic series of images reveals the impact of flight termination tests conducted on one hapless F-16 airframe before the FSAT project got underway.
The defunct Viper in question was 78-0097, which was blown apart on the range at Eglin AFB in August 2010. The goal of the test was to ensure that unmanned QF-16 target jets could be safely destroyed should their missions need to be terminated. It also sought to determine a range safety debris footprint, according to Eglin’s public affairs team.
At around 11:15 on the morning of August 19, 2010, the 780th Test Squadron blew the decommissioned warplane apart. The event was overseen by the QF-16 special program office.
As the explosion occurred, a ball of flame erupted from the centre of the pole-mounted aircraft, followed by thick black smoke and a deep, rumbling boom. As the smoke cleared from the wreck, F-16 78-0097 was found to have been blown in half directly behind the tandem cockpit, its canopy perspex clouded, the front undercarriage hanging limp beneath.
“We’re taking these non-operational aircraft and reusing them, recycling if you will,” said Kevin Diggs, QF-16 test and evaluation lead, at the time of the explosive trial. “We find a better purpose for them in making them flight worthy, which gives our weapons designers the opportunity to test our advanced weapons against a modern aircraft.”
The fourth generation F-16 may now be a dated design but remains a formidable aircraft in both the fighter and strike capacities. Having languished in desert storage for years, older F-16s are now being dusted off and returned to flight in a bid to provide the next generation of fighter pilots and ground defences with a highly capable adversary.
Maj. Wayne Chitmon of the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron said: “It’s sad to see an F-16 destroyed like this”. But added: “At the same time, however, it’s exciting to know the fourth generation ability of the F-16 will enhance the warfighters’ capabilities.”
78-0097 was an early block 1 F-16B which first flew in September 1979. The two-seat aircraft initially served with the 310th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron at Luke AFB, Arizona. It’s mangled form is seen here in the markings of its final operator, the 40th Flight Test Squadron at Eglin in Florida. It’s unclear whether the remains have since been removed, or left on the pole for posterity.
Fan of the Fighting Falcon? If so, don’t miss the almost-unique F-16XL and other defunct relics in the NASA Dryden boneyard at Edwards AFB.